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Transgender people, the military and us

Jul 27, 2017

Forty years ago, I was in a special, high-pressure graduate program at the University of Michigan designed to make trained journalists out of otherwise hapless intellectuals like myself in a year and a half. It was an amazingly successful program.

Many of my classmates went on to jobs in senior management in places like both the New York and Los Angeles Times and the former International Herald Tribune.

The fellow I was closest to was a very thoughtful, slight man from Okemos who was fascinated by Japan, had learned the language fluently and had a Japanese wife and son. He had a wonderful sense of humor and went on to become a correspondent for Newsweek.

Years later, I visited him in Tokyo. Not long afterwards, I got a letter from him, now her, explaining that she had realized she was transgender, and was taking hormones and preparing for the surgery needed to become female. This was far less common in the 1980s than now.

I was stunned but I hope supportive. However, I am a certified coward when it comes to surgery, and was also rather naïve. I asked David, now Dana, why she did not choose just to dress and live as a woman. She said that she knew that if she didn’t have corrective surgery, she would have had to kill herself. I lost touch with her mainly due to the chaos of our careers, but wherever she is, I hope her life has been successful and happy.

I remember she was fascinated by issues involving the Japanese military, and I think we once went to see maneuvers together. And so I thought of her yesterday, when I heard of Donald Trump’s sudden decision, if that is what it was, to ban all transgender persons from serving in our military “in any capacity whatsoever,” though thousands already are.

Trump cited the “enormous medical costs” to the taxpayers of transgender soldiers. In fact, those costs are somewhat less than one-tenth what the military spends on Viagra.

Whether transgender people now serving will have to leave is not clear. Senator John McCain, an authentic military hero, spoke up to defend transgender soldiers, and in a statement sure to have overwhelming bipartisan support, added that this was “yet another example of why major policy announcements shouldn’t be made via Twitter.”

What seemed certain was that this would lead to a mass of lawsuits and in an increase in the general chaos that is Washington these days. The New York Times indicated that this may be designed to win over religious conservatives who haven’t been inclined to support funding for President Trump’s wall to seal off the border with Mexico.

Last weekend I was at a party where someone asked Geoffrey Fieger, the famously flamboyant attorney, why he thought so many blue-collar people still supported this administration, even though its policies seemed not to be in their best interests.

“You know why. It’s that old dog-whistle of racism,” said Fieger, who has an African-American adopted child, and whose father worked for civil rights in Mississippi when that was dangerous. Attacking transgender persons is another form of that.

And I think we might all ask ourselves what sort of people we really are, and what we want this country to become.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio’s Senior Political Analyst. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.